Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

I’m not all surprised that Fox rounded out the first part of its 75th Anniversary set with this classic from 1959 – a notorious commercial flop but widely hailed by critics and certainly now considered a landmark film, an immortal work that lives up to the powerful legacy of its source material. The Diary of Anne Frank is indeed a film for the ages.

But yet, I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and, gasp – dare I say it – I maybe I hadn’t really seen the whole thing at all. Sure, I read and acted out the play in 8th grade, as part of a special Holocaust unit (and back in ’84 that was a very novel concept), but I never really got into it. I revered it, I respected it, I honored it.. and then I put it up on the shelf where other “special” things were kept.

But now, seeing the movie, I can appreciate it now as a living, breathing, vital piece of both history and art. Director George Stevens honors the play upon which his movie is based by doing little with it literarily. The dialogue is mostly intact, and he resists the urge to “open it up,” realizing that to do so would ruin the essential claustrophobia that is needed to impart the Frank family’s feeling of frustration and fear, and also love and solidarity. In a way, the film plays as a microcosm of an entire family’s life, compressed in time to two years, as well as a microcosm of their friends and neighbors, given the addition of the Van Daams and Mr. Dussel. As such, at times, this is an enjoyable film, far more about life than the death for which the Holocaust is associated. But perhaps, that is why the film is so much about life.

We all know the story. Otto Frank, realizing the Nazis are moving beyond persecution and deporting Jews to their deaths in concentration camps, arranges to have his family – himself, his wife and two daughters Margot and Anne – move in to an annex upstairs of a business run by former associates Mr. Kraler and Miep. Also staying with them are Mr. and Mrs. Van Daam, and their son, Peter (and his cat), and then later, a dentist named Mr. Dussel. Kraler promises to provide food for them via his ration tickets, but the new (and cramped) habitation proves to be most difficult for all. Socially active Anne feels it worst, until her dad bestows upon her a most welcome ift: a diary, within which she can scribe her most innermost secrets and thoughts about this new and often cruel world she now finds herself in.

Throughout two long years, we discover much about the Frank family. Anne is far closer to her father, able to confide in him thoughts she’d be loathe to share with her aloof mom, and sister Margot also seems to be disconnected. Anne is, of course, interested in Peter, given her hormonal changes, and she even sets up a “date” with him, once she is able to break the ice with a boy completely unfamiliar with the opposite sex. Hanukah is celebrated, and Anne turns out to be the only one with a gift for everyone, and as each season rolls around, Anne is able to appreciate the natural beauty outside through a sky window.

With a radio, everyone an hear the latest war developments; they excite over news of the D-Day landing, but locally, things do not look so good when a burglar attempts to rob a downstairs safe, and clearly detects their presence upstairs after someone trips and makes some telltale noise. Things come to a head when Mr Van Daan is caught stealing food, and Mrs. Frank orders his eviction, but outside forces grow more threatening, revealing the pettiness of their squabbles. Ultimately, Nazis break into the building, ad into their hiding place. It is revealed, through return flashback, that the thief had informed on them. Otto survived the camps, his family did not, but he now has retrieved his daughter’s precious diary. His response after reading each and every achingly inspiring word: “She puts me to shame."

So, a few thoughts after my revisitation of this treasured work. First, I’m surprised at already how many WWII-based films we’ve gotten so far. Starting with Twelve O’Clock High and moving up to South Pacific and now this, the war was clearly a major influence on films of this era, either directly or tangentially – and we’ve certainly not seen the last of it. Of course, Diary is unique in that it focuses on the Holocaust, perhaps the first to have done so, and it likely signaled a greater awareness of the horror – not simply an act of war but a separate, horrific event that requires study in its own right.

And, artistically, it’s quite amazing. Director George Stevens, who had a brief but spectacular run primarily in the 50s, closes out the decade with a film that holds up remarkably well in the modern hyperkinetic media world of mass, instant consumption. Credit that to his skill not just with director actors and dialogue but also with the innate instinct of where to place his camera for maximum effect, no easy task when dealing with essentially only one room. He knows the value of a good, solid closeup, and he knows when to peel saway to outside action to alleviate our own tedium. Ironically, we want to be back inside, though, and that’s just where he takes us. At nearly three hours, Diary could easily have been an unendurable vitamin – food for you, but…. Instead, it’s captivating from beginning to end, emotionally, spiritually, thematically, dramatically…

And then there’s the stark but poetic B&W photography, How else could one capture such a sobering event? In 1959, it wasn’t uncommon (not until the mid-60s did it disappear complexly) but still it must’ve been a tough sell for Fox, the studio that brought full-color Cinemascope to the masses and was trying to compete with TV, which was all B&W. (And it’s three hour TRT didn’t help either.) But in the end, folks didn’t exactly line up for it, and Stevens had to revert back to an epic – 1965’s  The Greatest Story Ever Told, which would wind up being his final film.

Perhaps just one small quibble (if you’ll allow): the all-too dramatically obvious choice to actualize Anne and Peter’s love with a kiss, to swelling orchestral strains, just at the moment Nazis barge into their building. This moment is pure Hollywood: the archetypal moments when two lovebirds realize their mutual fate and decide to avow their love for each other with their first real smooch. Pure Hollywood, sure, but this picture aims to be more serious than that, and such a crescendo feels entirely wrongheaded.

But that’s really it. And if I could go back in time, I’d tell my 8th grade teacher how much I love this play, having seen the movie, and how wrong I was for reading my part with all the interest and fervor of a 411 operator.

Fox keeping up its reputation for churning out movies with conscience, even if they weren’t always huge hits. Bravo, Daryl – ya done good, buddy. Can’t wait to see what’s next. 

Rating:  ****

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...